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Click and bricks--transforming education.


Educating tomorrow's leaders requires information age learning environments. Distributed education, distributed learning (DL), or e-learning can create such environments. This article provides a model for DL that targets graduate level education for mid to senior level executives using the pedagogy of interactive constructive seminar. Key components of this type of virtual classroom, to include course design, commitment, explicit expectations, immersion, and time, are addressed from the student and faculty perspectives.


When you think of distributed education, distributed learning (DL), distance learning, or e-learning, what image pops into your head? Axe these new phrases for traditional correspondence courses or correspondence courses offered using a CD, DVD, or the World Wide Web? Is it a distributed video lecture where students are separated from the professor, but call in questions after the lecture? Is it a web based lecture students view at a time and location of their choosing? Is it a course where students read the material then answer faculty posed questions, on a one-to-one basis? Is it a web based correspondence course that students can access 24/7, work at their own place and pace? Is it some combination of all the above in addition to other virtual options?

Herein lays the problem. With so many DL models available it is difficult to determine exactly what model an institution is using unless it is explicit in its program description. Most are not. Lacking this information, students find it difficult to assess whether the model used for the curriculum and pedagogy is right for them (Meyer, May 2003). Supervisors find it hard to make informed decisions on the resource support their employees will need. Assumptions are made. Students enroll. Supervisors set expectations and unknowingly shortchange the actual support needed. Professors have ground rules they expect students to follow. The course starts. Early to mid way through, the clashes of the collective assumptions all too often produce frustration, attrition, resource expenditure and perceived failure. These are costs associated with not explicitly defining the deployed pedagogy.

Emulating the collaborative interactive energy of a senior executive level seminar is the DL model The National Defense University's (NDU) Information Resources Management (IRM) College has evolved to over the past 8-years. The College teaches graduate courses for mid to senior military and civilian leaders to prepare them to direct and leverage the information component of national power. The College offers courses students may take through DL (clicks), resident (bricks), or a combination of both, to earn certification in the disciplines of Chief Information Officer, Electronic Government, and Information Assurance. Both bricks and clicks are rigorous and interactive. Numerous major accredited universities accept up to 15 graduate credit hours from the College into designated Master's and Doctoral programs. This article discusses the IRM College DL interactive constructive seminar model. It addresses the benefits and costs from the faculty and students' perspectives.

Faculty Perspective

What does the IRM College DL look like to the faculty? Teaching a DL course is an intense 4-month 24/7 immersion with students. The virtual classroom is made up of 14-22 mid to senior level military and civilian leaders employed worldwide engaging in a 2- graduate hour course along with their demanding careers and busy personal lives. All enter the classroom with rich experiences. The challenge is structuring and creating rigorous academic environments that enrich the students with relevant knowledge by integrating the theory and practice for just-in-time application in their professions. Throughout the course, independent of their whereabouts (office, bricks classroom, conference, home, holiday), faculty facilitate the virtual asynchronous dialog, staying connected with their students to ensure dialog is tracking with course objectives. The quality and diversity of expertise expected (academic scholar and teacher) and needed (improvisational artist, juggler, instructional designer and automation troubleshooter) when teaching DL goes beyond that when teaching the same content within the bricks (Swan, 2004), topped with the fact the former is 4-months of 24/7 boundary-free intensity.

Faculty engagement with students throughout the course is absolutely requisite to keeping a focused energetic dialog and student retention (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Collison et al., 2000). How is a DL course designed to nurture such an environment? The early weeks are key! Most critical are the months in which the course is being prepared prior to students enrolling. Nurturing a collaborative seminar entails crafting a syllabus with a variety of readings and mechanisms that keep the course material vibrant and student-focused (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Bolliger, 2003). The pedagogy needs to balance the "sage on the stage" and the "guide on the side" (Collison et al., 2000). The e-learning professor selectively intervenes in seminar discourse, with the focus on weaving together the threads of the seminar's dialog. Students are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning and that of their colleagues by giving them the means and encouragement to post links to relevant articles, access conference agendas, exchange analysis and synthesis of the theory in their own workplaces, and openly debate the theory vice reality (Swartz & Fischer, 2003; Palloff & Pratt, 2001). The course web site has to be clear, student friendly, and meet student learning and social needs. A great advantage of a DL course is the ability to leverage the richness of the web by augmenting course material such as on-line lectures, with an extensive webography of resources and encouraging students to expand the resources throughout the course.

Just as in the bricks classroom, there is a need for clear establishment of expectations for DL courses (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2004). Elements of the course rules of engagement (ROE) include detailing (1) the course's pedagogy, (2) key elements of the on-line environment, (3) navigation tips for the course web site, (4) assignment and deadline routines, (5) course assessment methodology, and (6) the expectations for routine performance, dialog and etiquette (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Bolliger, 2003). These rules need to be explicit upfront and reiterated throughout the course. Student status is deliberately omitted from the roster, as the worth of each is measured by their ideas and the critical thinking they contribute. Students are encouraged to disagree but not be disagreeable. The University policy of non-attribution, a cornerstone component of academic discourse, mandates nurturing a true sense of trust, since there is a written transcript of all DL course dialog (Kling & Courtright, 2003). Assignments are designed to allow students, as reflective practitioners, to critically analyze the issues being studied and generate constructive dialog while promoting intellectual integration of theory and practice (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Young et al., 2001). Consciously crafting the choreography of the course is foundational to developing and sustaining professional and social asynchronous collaborative interaction. A course is structured with a rhythm of individual and group assignments, as well as a diversity of types of assignments such as essays, case studies, editorial pieces, opposing op eds or rebuttals, "best practice" articles, or organizational makeover recommendations. Now that the course has been set-up, how do you keep the vibrancy throughout its execution?

Interactive outreach to each student by regular updates to the on-line course site is imperative (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Each faculty posting sets the model for the expectation they have of the student--a display stronger than any words in the ROE. When students are working for a week in a specific area, shortly after their assignment deadline, faculty need to post a summary and feedback which is rich in references to the students' comments (Swan, 2004). As in the bricks environment, teaching the course requires adaptation to relevant current news. Timely reputable articles in support of the particular lesson are important in demonstrating the faculty is fully engaged in the course. DL professors capitalize on relevant new executive appointments, enactment of legislation or issuances of reports, as opportunities for discussion, as would be done within the bricks classroom. Effective DL courses do not run on automatic pilot.

Professors who create interactive learning environments are first academic scholars, but in the DL classroom, they also take on the role of improvisational artists and technical jugglers. Once their DL course begins, they are simultaneously engaged each week at three levels. First, they are scrutinizing each student's work from the previous week and assessing its quality and posting grades, while crafting a comprehensive yet concise summary of the salient aspects gleaned from all the students' inputs (Collison et al., 2000). Second, they are regularly reading and appropriately interceding in the current week's threaded discussion dialog, often serving as an automation technical advisor and troubleshooter (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Third, the faculty is finalizing the release of the next week's course material which often mandates dramatic update, to allow the lesson to better resonate with the students, integrating the latest of current events key to the course and lesson, and ensuring the integrity of the myriad of links. How much time does all this take? The general consensus is more than in a traditional residential classroom (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Young et al., 2001; Academe, 2002). In an established IRM College DL course, the faculty spends three to four times the hours they do when delivering the same course in residence.

From the IRM College's experience in teaching graduate courses for mid to senior level military and civilian leaders, successful attributes of on-line teaching include preparedness, faculty expertise, expectation setting, interaction, flexibility, and personalization. Now, what about the view of DL from the students' eyes?

Student Perspective

What do students want from their on-line learning experience? Like in the traditional classroom, the students' expectations run the continuum from passive receiver of the faculty determined content (instructive) to active player involved in creating the learning environment (constructive). They want to be able to enter the classroom on their own schedule, at their own pace and place. Many seek the social aspects they experience in the traditional classroom. They want to know that the program is as credible as the one taught within the bricks. However, students don't necessarily want to spend more time and work than they normally do in the bricks. There are e-learning courses available across different campuses and workplaces to satisfy all. The IRM College's DL classroom targets those students who want to be actively involved throughout the lessons from the convenience of their personal location, desire to have the social interactions and extend their professional network, can be confident that their DL course provides as good or better learning environment than the traditional classroom, and are willing to put the same amount of time and effort as in the bricks classroom. So, what exactly does this mean from the student's perspective?

When students enroll in an IRM College DL constructive type classroom, they become an integral part of the success of the learning experience for themselves and their classmates. It is not a question/answer forum between faculty and student, rather a virtual running and threaded discussion of "what if?" "for example," "that implies," and "an exception to" exchange among all members. Students listen to each other, take think time and then respond, often with the "so what" in their workplace (Schwartz & Fischer, 2003). This process is asynchronous, allowing the students to respond on their own designated time and from their own place. Students come to class during the week when they are ready to learn rather than on a preset scheduled time (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2004). They read what others have to say, go away and think about it, returning when they are ready to respond. When preparing their response, students usually reread the class dialog multiple times, editing their own ideas not only to connect with the conversation, but also to clarify their analysis, applications and synthesis. This process is repeated throughout each weekly lesson. Why do students like it? It is their classroom. They get hooked into the discussion as they critically reflect upon their experiences and learn how others have dealt with similar challenges (Schwartz & Fischer, 2003). It gives them time to test the theory in action at work while taking the course. And when they are ready to respond, they do--independent of the time or day. Their classroom is always open, and because of interactive faculty and classmates, they don't feel they ever enter an empty classroom.

This type of constructive pedagogy paves the way for creating very social learning. All students are actively involved, introverts and extraverts. Each student is required to respond to all issues, whereas in the traditional classroom not all share their views either because they are not ready at the moment in time, or the clock pushes the course forward (Meyer, 2003). DL students glean most of their applications and analysis from their work experience. This allows students to get to know each other in ways not always possible in the traditional classroom (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2004). They exchange the trials and tribulations they have experienced when addressing the lesson's issues. Since the IRM College's courses are open to all federal agencies, the breadth of issues is expansive and the level of experience deep. Students leverage these factors while expanding their professional networks and building their social ones.

DL costs in time and discipline. Students assess constructive DL courses take more time than theft traditional counterparts. In the classroom of the bricks, the schedule is preset and the clock determines the lesson's start and finish. Preparation is outside the classroom on the students' time. In the virtual classroom, students have all week to work the lesson versus several hours in the classroom. They come "in" to the virtual classroom, and spend the time they want and need. Often their preparatory material is on-line. Most students realize that they need to check into the virtual classroom on a regular basis over the entire week, sometimes for 10-15 minutes to read what their classmates have to say, and other times for much longer to prepare and respond. Responding in the virtual classroom takes longer than in the traditional one, as for most, reading and writing take longer than listening and orally responding. The cost is distributed time, but often the benefit is richer responses, deeper learning, and honing of written communication skills (Meyer, 2003). Why? The process naturally lends itself to learning. Students open a response, read it, prepare their own submissions, often rereading all the other comments multiple times, and then their own again to be sure it clearly and succinctly addresses the issues at hand, and is edited appropriately. In the virtual world, it is the students' written responses that solely represent them--the content and ability to communicate at the strategic, engaging and professional level. DL students not only have to wrestle with the lesson content, but at the same time have ample opportunity to hone two skills every senior executive needs--critical thinking and written communications.

Does clicks education take longer than bricks as students assess? If measured by classroom time, yes. If measured by learning time, no. Since the time is divvied up in quite a different way, students sense that DL courses take longer. However, when comparing the actual clock time of the learning process, most students report that they spend three to four hours per week on their DL course, including preparation time. Often this time is in their virtual classroom reading the on-line assignments and preparing responses. For the twelve week course, this equates to 36-48 hours. In-classroom time for the equivalent course is 37 hours, plus preparation time.


While the clicks and the bricks classroom share the same outcome, their means may be quite different. All students, faculty and supervisors have first hand familiarity with a myriad of traditional classrooms, while relatively few have yet to experience one let alone numerous DL courses. Thus DL creates different mental models for faculty, students, and supervisors. To best serve all so good decisions can be made, learning institutions have to explicitly define their DL pedagogy. Students need to match the curriculum content to their requirements, their personal learning style, and expectations to the curriculum's pedagogy. Supervisors should consider the resources and attributes required from their employees to successfully take an e-course. Faculty need to be very explicit both in the syllabi and during the opening lessons regarding the expectations on content, involvement, and ROE. The clicks classroom is transforming the education of information age leaders.


Distance education teachers work more, report says (2002, May/June). Academe, 20.

Bolliger, D.U. (Spring 2003). Strategies for successful e-teaching. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 61-67.

Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Garrison, D. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2004). Critical factors in student satisfaction and success. Sloan-C Research Presentation Series: 2004 Elements of Quality Online Education: Into the Mainstream, 29-38.

Kling, R. & Courtright, C. (2003). Group behavior and learning in electronic forums: a sociotechnical approach. The Information Society, 19, 221-235.

Meyer, K.A. (2003). Face-to-face versus threaded discussions: the role of time and high-order thinking. JALN, 7(6).

Meyer, K.A. (2003, May). The web impacts on student learning. THE Journal.

Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: the realities of online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Schwartz, M.S. & Fischer, K.W. (2003, Summer). Building vs borrowing. Liberal Education, 22-28.

Swan, K. (2004). Learning online: a review of current research on issues of interface, teaching presence and learner characteristics. Sloan-C Research Presentation Series: 2004 Elements of Quality Online Education: Into the Mainstream, 61-77.

Young, S., Cantrell, P.P. & Shaw, D.G. (2001, Winter). Online instruction: new roles for teachers and students. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 11-17.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Mary S. McCully, National Defense University, Washington, DC

Kathleen M. Schulin, National Defense University, Washington, DC

McCully, Ph.D. and Schulin, DPDS are both Professors at Information Resources Management College.
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Author:Schulin, Kathleen M.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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